Sealed Knot

Unwanted Object

Creative Sources

The Cortet

By Ken Waxman
October 9, 2005

Visions of formally attired symphonic types producing shimmering glissandi, or alternately of Harpo Marx manhandling the luminescent strings, remain in most folks’ minds when they think of harpists. That may be why the 47-string symphony harps or smaller 34-string Celtic harps are usually musically underrepresented except for their coloration qualities.

Welsh harp-slinger Rhodri Davies may be the antidote to all that. Born in Aberystwyth, he has played the harp since the age of seven, and was educated enough in standard techniques to easily work in the so-called classical, pop and traditional fields. Slotting himself as an experimenter, however, he’s spent the past decade investigating electro-acoustic environments, adding noise, silence, textures and abstraction to his sound through preparations, detuning, bowed and e-bowed strings. The connective thread among these discs, he’s matched with different international ensembles on each.

Unwanted Object – which begs the question of which unwanted object is being described – is a trio session with British bassist Mark Wastell, who plays cello and vibrating surfaces in other circumstances, and German percussionist Burkhard Beins, a veteran of sessions with other new minimalists such as guitarist Keith Rowe and tubaist Robin Hayward. British-born, Berlin-resident Hayward himself joins Davies on Amber, as do two lesser known players. Argentinean in Paris, Lucio Capece plays bass clarinet and soprano saxophone. Someone who studied with French reedist Louis Sclavis, he moves between improvised and notated music, most prominently with the Q-O2 Ensemble directed by violist Julia Eckhardt, who is also featured on this disc. As well as performing chamber music and in contemporary music ensembles, Belgian Eckhardt improvises with veterans of that genre such as Beins.

Davies’ long-time associate, British tenor and soprano saxophonist John Butcher is featured on HHHH, in a quartet filled out by German analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, who plays in a duo with Butcher, as well as with larger bands. Fourth member is prepared piano master Cor Fuhler of the Netherlands, who leads his own nine-piece Corkestra and is also part of numerous smaller groupings.

Divorced from the other two sets, the all-strings Unwanted Object is also the most abstract. Successor to a 2001 CD on Meniscus where Wastell concentrated on cello, its four untitled tracks deal with the friction generated from the abrasions forced on cymbals, drum tops, rims, strings, tuning pegs, and the ribs, belly and sides of the instruments. Beins isn’t the only percussionist either, considering that the drone Wastell produces from his four thick strings plus Davies’ rough harp string sounds are extended with cymbals, sticks, tambourines and other metal objects.

With the percussionist’s splayed beat sometimes amplified and sometimes superseded by squealing pulses that resemble clanging bell interference and hollow tube exorcism, the three work their way to the tension-enveloped, almost 13½-minute final track. Here the oscillating cymbal shrills, ostinato bass pulses and crinkle of balled aluminum foil from the harp strings that have lurked as an undercurrent since the beginning combine and expand.

Scraped low-pitched harp string sul ponticello roughness is followed by vigorous plucks from the bass and what sound like marbles thrown against strings or gyrating on drum tops. As pulses in triple counterpoint get louder and more insistent, hissing flutters and motor-drive suggestions add a robotic presence. Finally lower case cymbal slaps and chromatic harp runs transform the scratchy murmuring into a solid mass, superseded by a coda of percussion thumps and singular chapel bell-like peals.

Elsewhere, timbre mutation distinguishes Amber from the other quartet CD, since the number of add-ons and attachments in use dwarfs the extended techniques Eckhardt adapts for her fiddle. Transforming his horns into unharmonious sound objects, Capece mixes individual extended techniques with instruments prepared with ping pong balls, water, different kind of paper, fragments of plastic bottles, analog electronic setups and other objects. As for Hayward, he twists and blocks his valves and bell in such a way that the subsequent pressure leaks give his lumbering brass unique and distinctive tones.

Scope is available for all these strategies in the more-than-32½-minute first – of two – tracks. Muted, stopped tones from sibilant reeds and buzzing valve tones join with droning string resonation to overcome a rumbling pitch and condense into a wider and more viscous sound. Together the Bronx cheer-like reed pitches and breakneck sul ponticello string sweeps accelerate into electronic-mimicking whirls that grind like the motor on a conveyer belt.

Soon the harp’s pizzicato plinks swell and are extended by abrasions and thumps from wooden sticks inserted among them. Simultaneously, tuba growls are blocked with twisted spit valves, while on the reed side, measured tongue slaps and key pops turn into strangled cries and pitches, and then coalesce into a concentrated tone block. Eventually the spherical drone is pierced by earth-shaking tuba vibrations and Capece sucking and kissing his reed. Two-thirds of the way through, a sound variation on a rolling marble – from the reedist’s body tube? – presages a quiet interlude which is then interrupted by wood-rendering string yanks that gradually reach a crescendo of rattling, scratching and shrilling uneven tones, and which are sustained by blocked-valve flatulence and mallets tapping strings for new resonances.

Inflating the capacity and impermeability of horn vibrato, irregularly pulsed spiccato motions from the strings add double counterpoint in the final section allowing the irregular pulse subsides into silence.

Wobbly string clatter, lathe-turning buzzes, cross-blown reed puffs and twisted valve redirection are the second piece’s only distinguishing features from the first. Overall though, appreciation of both it and the entire CD demands a blind adherence to the necessity of group creation.

HHHH’s four tracks showcases sonic textures no less complex or coagulated than on Amber, but the individuality of the four players is more evident. Perhaps that’s because it features some of Europe’s most accomplished free improvisers

“RH”, at less than three minutes, for instance, fades seamlessly into slide whistle textures from Fuhler preparations, as Lehn’s synth beeps and peeps, Butcher interjects lip bubbling and quacking, and Davies ratcheting textures and side slaps. When these string sounds become accompanying plinks they’re twinned by distinctive trills from Butcher’s reed.

Conversely, the saxman’s grainy resonating trills are matched with jagged harp abrasions, droning ostinato pulsation from Lehn and inside piano crunches from Fuhler on “HN”. As circularly vibrated notes from the saxophone are transformed into tongue slaps, Bronx cheers and glottal punctuation, Davies finds space to showcase splayed chromatic lines as well as rattling tambourine friction among his strings. Meantime Lehn pulsates a steady continuum of bottom scraping sputters.

All and all, the remainder of the CD appears to frame “TH”, which at a touch over 24 minutes is obviously HHHH’s centrepiece. Crinkly reed chirps and harp plinks convene with synthesizer sine waves and banjo-like internal string flails from Fuhler to begin the piece. Instructively, the scraped and buzzing harp and piano string shrills soon appear almost as oral as Butcher’s aviary twittering and irregular pitch vibrations.

Eventually, soprano saxophone vibrations soar over chromatic harp arpeggios and the keyboardist punching high frequency textures from wound soundboard strings. Not content with that, Fuhler is soon scraping both gentle sawing and broad-axe tones from the piano’s internal strings as he’s simultaneously sweeping his hands over the external keys without depressing them. Lehn responds with high-pitched, bird-like chirping, Butcher with bubbly, wet overblowing and Davies with accented patterning that sounds as if he’s striking his strings with a mallet. The marimba-like vibrations produced amplify not only the note but their overtones as well.

Virtually comping – in the jazz sense – Fuhler’s fills encourage Butcher to create intensity driven reed bites that take on Woody Woodpecker cadences and Davies’ striated cymbal to scour the harp string. As accelerated multiphonics from the soprano saxophone combine with grinding drones from the synthesizer, the effect is that of extenuated and continuous sine waves. Merged in broken octaves, Davies’ harp string battering and Butcher’s flutter tonguing define detailed absorption, until a shrill twitter from Lehn gives the instant composition concluding punctuation.

HHHH may be the primary example of the many strategies of an improvising harpist. Still each of these discs offers many characterizations of Davies’s unique and considerable skills.